By now it’s a given that the Alice movies, like the Jason Bourne movies, won’t have much to do with the books they’re based on even as they use the same titles in the same sequence. The main question to ask is how the new film compares to the old one, and — although I haven’t seen Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland since it came out six years ago — I’m inclined to say that Alice through the Looking Glass, directed by James Bobin, is marginally better, though admittedly it had a very low bar to clear.
Where the first film took Lewis Carroll’s character and turned her into a sort of Chosen One leading armies Joan of Arc-style in a fantasy battle, the new film plunks Alice (Mia Wasikowska) into a different sort of generic Hollywood template: this time we get to learn about the origins of various characters who never needed origin stories in the first place, and the mechanism by which we hear these stories is time travel.
The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), it turns out, is unwell because he found something that reminds him of his family, which was supposedly killed by the Jabberwocky many years ago — and Alice comes to believe that the only way to heal the Hatter is to go back in time and save his family, using a device called a Chronosphere that she steals from a half-man, half-machine being who is the personification of Time itself.
Time is played by Sacha Baron Cohen (who previously collaborated with Bobin on Da Ali G Show), and if you’ve ever wanted to know how funny he can be when he keeps things PG, this is your chance. I found him mildly amusing — worth a chuckle or two, but no guffaws — especially when he endures endless jests and puns about time waiting for no man, etc. “You think I haven’t heard these cheap barbs before?” he blurts out, in a voice that is occasionally reminiscent of Werner Herzog.
Time, it seems, can travel through time even when he doesn’t have his Chronosphere, and he too goes back in time to try to get the device back from Alice. Along the way, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, imperiously funny as always) also turns up to settle a score with her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, who doesn’t quite make the character’s airy mannerisms fit with the serious turn the story takes).
The visuals are imaginative enough even when there’s no story to make them sing. I loved the space between the mirrors — our world’s and theirs — when Alice first goes through the looking glass, and I appreciated the bold colour palette of the film as a whole, from the formal Asian dress that Alice wears when she first goes back to that world to the sequence in which entire settings turn a rusty reddish-brown.
Alas, the story itself is fairly dull throughout. Unsurprisingly, the framing narrative set in our world is one of the least interesting bits — yes, we get it, women’s options were limited in the 19th century — though it does set up some of the film’s key lessons, and you could do worse than to expose your kids to the idea that time giveth and taketh away, or that we can learn from the past even when we can’t change it, etc.
I’m just glad that the new film doesn’t have anything as cringeworthy as that weird dance the Mad Hatter did at the end of the previous film.